Bobby Lee Cook, one of America’s most celebrated lawyers, died peacefully at his mountain home in Cloudland, Georgia, on February 19th, surrounded by family. He was 94.
Bobby Lee was born in Chattoogaville, outside the small northwest Georgia town of Lyerly, on February 12, 1927, where he was raised in a home without running water, helping run the family’s modest grocery store and keep up with the farm chores. From this rural beginning, however, the son of Paul Cook and Alma Edge Cook embarked on a life’s journey that few could have then imagined. He took his first step into the wider world when, as a teenager, he enrolled in Gordon Academy a military school, where he learned the value of personal discipline, duty, and a robust education.
These values were further shaped by World War II. As soon as he graduated from high school, he lied about his age (then only 17) to enlist in the Navy. He first saw the Atlantic Ocean from St. Simons, Georgia on his way to combat in the Pacific. He never forgot that sight, which kindled a lifelong love of the Georgia Coast, and he later would buy homes on Sea Island, Georgia. During Naval training in New Orleans, Cook was also struck by how one would see ships burning off the coast on nearly a nightly basis. He boxed in the Navy, honing his innate fighting spirit which he never lost.
Peacetime brought new transitions that each played key roles in the rest of this life. First, he continued his education: Upon returning from the War, he attended the University of Alabama and Vanderbilt Law School. Second, he found his life partner. Bobby Lee married June Hays on June 8th, 1948, in Summerville, Georgia, a true June wedding that started a sixty-seven-year partnership.
Bobby Lee began his law practice in 1949 in Summerville, Georgia, and that practice from its inception represented his values: personal discipline, erudite temperament, duty to others, justice for all people from all walks of life, and (not the least important characteristic) an indomitable fighting spirit. He represented labor unions when it was unpopular, and moonshiners when it might not have been convenient. As his practice grew, word of his abilities spread, and he developed a reputation as a talented and successful trial lawyer.
While Bobby Lee served in the Georgia Legislature and once ran for Congress, his calling truly was in the courtroom. As time went on, he was called there by many, some of whom paid substantial six and seven figure fees for his skilled advocacy. He represented the Rockefellers, the Carnegies, Robert Vesco, C.H. Butcher, Jr., Mike Thevis, Daniel Paradies, and, for decades, was hired for, or consulted on, nearly every high-profile case in Georgia. His practice went on to transcend Georgia. Among the more than a hundred and fifty acquittals he achieved in murder cases during his career, he won murder trials in Germany and Vietnam, and his career is believed to have inspired the television show Matlock. One of his more colorful cases, in Savannah, is chronicled in Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.
Among all of these cases, though, perhaps the one he was most proud of was the Matthews murder case. That case embodied his abiding sense that justice should never, ever be denied to anyone from any walk of life. Cook spent over $50,000 of his own money and years of his career to overturn murder convictions wrongfully obtained in Cobb County, Georgia.
He walked with kings, but never lost the common touch. Though he was friends with and socialized with Justice Douglas, others on the Court, numerous politicians, dignitaries and business leaders, Cook never forgot his roots. On Saturday mornings, he opened his office doors to local residents for whom he offered his counsel, usually at no charge. Cook was also a tireless and gifted teacher and mentored numerous younger lawyers, spoke at uncounted seminars and was generously giving of his time to others working to solve thorny issues encountered in their own cases. He was a tireless worker and early riser, and often instructed colleagues “Call me tomorrow morning at 7.”
Bobby Lee Cook was recognized with lifetime achievement awards by both the National and Georgia Associations of Criminal Defense Lawyers (GACDL), Georgia State University College of Law School’s 2017 Ben F. Johnson, Jr. Public Service Award, GreenLaw’s Lifetime Achievement Award, the Small Town Lawyer Made Good Award, (presented by the State Bar of Washington), inducted into the American Trial Lawyers Hall of Fame, and many more countless other awards too numerous to list.
Even while these well-deserved honors accumulated, he never lost his razor-sharp wit. His award from GACDL included the honor of having his portrait hung in the Georgia Supreme Court. When presented with this, Cook quipped, “I’d rather be hung in the Supreme Court than by the Supreme Court.” Similarly, while he always appreciated the recognition, Cook never rested on his laurels. He practiced law until virtually the time of his death. He was universally recognized as the dean of criminal defense lawyers in Georgia, and his death is mourned across the country.
Bobby Lee was predeceased by his wife, June, his son Bobby Lee Cook, Jr., and his son-in-law Lewis Branch Sutton Connelly and Roger Wheeler Williams. He is survived by his daughters Kristina Cook Graham and Sara Cook Williams; his grandchildren, Sarah Holston O’Reagan. Jessica Wheat Cook Hale, Christopher Sutton Connelly, Jeffrey Scott Connelly, Sarah Elizabeth Connelly Turner, and Anna Lee Williams Jones; great-grandchildren, Patrick Aidan Fell, Morgan Aeron Cook Hale, Lillian Grace Connelly, Fiona Bess Connelly, Branch Hays Connelly, Thomasin June Connelly, Vivian Hays Jones, and Olive Kristina Connelly Turner.
Due to coronavirus concerns and the safety of others, it was Bobby Lee’s wish that his funeral be confined to a private family service. A more fitting memorial service will be held at a later time. In lieu of flowers, the family requests that memorial contributions be sent to the Boys and Girls Club of Chattooga County, P.O. Box 636, Summerville, Ga. 30747, or Georgia State College of Law, Office of Development, P.O. Box 4037, Atlanta, Ga. 30303. Earle Rainwater Funeral Home in charge of arrangements.